Bored kids of privilege looking for thrills, validation and love. You’ve seen it done funny and twisted before in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and more recently driven by ennui in Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which felt like a modern day retelling of her Marie Antoinette—after all, aren’t cake and celebrity bling the same thing? So it’s fitting too that the latest entry into the teen anxiety crisis genre is the debut of Sophia’s niece, Gia Coppola, who gives a shout out to auntie, by panning over a poster of Sophia’s debut film, The Virgin Suicides hanging on the wall of one of her darlings.
The “all in the family” ties run deep. The film’s based on a collection of short stories written by James Franco, who also plays the amiable girls soccer coach Mr. B. and it stars Emma Roberts (Eric’s daughter, Julia’s niece) and Jack Kilmer (son of Val, who crops up in an outrageous cameo).
Things begins ordinarily enough with two teens getting drunk in a vacant parking lot and bantering some nonsensical smack about who would be king and who would be servant until one of the two, suddenly and violently ups the stakes. The eruption lingers unsettlingly so like a protuberant shock in Larry Clark’s Kids, and the two boys, Teddy (the younger Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff), drift through the movie like Crispin Glover and Keanu Reeves in The River’s Edge—tied together by circumstance but never fully on the same page. Teddy’s got a long-standing crush on April (Roberts) that he can’t articulate, while April’s babysitting relationship with Mr. B. (he’s a single dad) begins to shift and change.
Like Amy Heckerling’s bountiful and iconic Fast Times, many divergent plot threads fan out through the affluent neighborhood and ultimately return to center in entwined and piquant revelation. The ebb and flow and dreamy composition (adroitly shot by Autumn Donald) as the film floats from one precarious parentless situation to the next, is so confident and tight, one wonders if the twenty-six-year-old Gia weren’t getting on the spot advice from her aunt or legendary grandpapa, Francis Ford.
The film’s true strength however lies in the nuanced characters and the able performers who bring them to light. Roberts conveys heavy weariness with just a titillating flicker of brightness as the conflicted April. Much of the film’s onus is put upon her, but it’s Kilmer, with the vacant soulful eyes his dad flashed as the iconic Jim Morrison in The Doors, who carries the torch. Of the anxious lot, his Teddy is the most vulnerable and outwardly hopeful. You can see future promise and imminent disaster hang in the balance of his every decision. Wolff, a musician by trade, is a sociopathic tour de force as Fred, who would be at home in any Clark or Gus Van Sant project, while Franco, for the most part, is the flip side of his Spring Breakers persona, but yet still too dangerously close to girls half his age. The other scene stealer, besides Wolff, comes in the doe-eyed formation of Zoe Levin (The Way Way Back) as Emily, an attention-deprived waif who in order to fill her needy quota is quick to drop to her knees. Despite her depraved practices, her tender sweetness shines through glowingly, even as she comes between the two boys.
Not everything in Palo Alto quite holds together, however. There are several plot developments that feel overwrought and seeded and lacking in earnestness. They’re small and easy to let pass, but they’re there. Still, the latest Coppola behind the lens has served notice—it will be interesting to see how she follows up. If pedigree is any indicator, the future holds brightness.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Gia Coppola
Writer: Gia Coppola and James Franco
Starring: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco, Val Kilmer
Release Date: May 9, 2014